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Posted at 9:30 AM ET, 11/ 4/2010

College admissions’ dirty little secrets

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Dean P. Skarlis, president of The College Advisor of New York in Albany.

By Dean Skarlis
According to the The Chronicle of Higher Education, there now are 100 colleges which cost more than $50,000 per year, including the first public university, the University of California at Berkeley.

What would shock unassuming parents even more than exorbitant tuition are some of college admissions’ dirty little secrets. I believe shock therapy is necessary, given the size of the investment parents will make in paying as much as a quarter of a million dollars for four years at many of these popular schools. They need to be alerted so they can separate valuable information from propaganda.

A piece of conventional wisdom imparted by colleges that I routinely recommend consumers ignore is to “let Johnny first select the school and then mom and dad can figure out how to pay for it.” The logic here is that these two parts of the college selection process are distinct and mutually exclusive. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Over the past 20 years, colleges have changed dramatically. The majority of schools now have significant agendas, and are less concerned about making the best match. Instead, they seek high quality students, diversity, and as many “full pays” as possible. The admissions and financial aid processes have become irreversibly intertwined and students whose parents can “write the check” stand a markedly better chance of getting admitted, all other factors being equal.

Another favorite tip counselors love to give is to search for colleges that offer “need-based” financial aid. Families often hear this term at college fairs, and read about it in the media. What need-based aid means is that an institution promises a prospective student a financial aid package that covers ENTIRELY what the financial aid formula says the family can afford. This aid comes in the form of grants, loans and work-study awards.

But schools use different aid formulas to assess families’ ability to pay, and the reality is that need-blind admissions is available at roughly two dozen of the most elite institutions in the U.S. that can afford to offer full aid. For the 99 percent of students who can never get admitted to these highly selective schools, this policy doesn’t apply. Yet it lures people into believing that the admission decision and the award package are awarded SEPARATELY. This may have been true in the 1980s, but it certainly is not the case now.

A friend of mine who is an admissions dean at a well-known research institution laments how much college admissions has changed.

She says: “Today, it’s all about ‘net tuition revenue,’” or hitting a revenue target that a school projects it needs. A client recently informed me that when they told an admissions representative that they expected to be paying the full price, given their income, the admissions person said the institution was “need-aware,” meaning they would look favorably on their high income in the admissions process. Translation: The school wanted this client’s child and was willing to admit the student. By the way, this student was a marginal candidate applying to a selective college. So much for egalitarian idealism.

Using both need-based financial aid and merit scholarships, the dirty little secret is that schools are leveraging “the best” students – this term is relative to every college and every student. Colleges throw more money at the kids they want the most—athletes, strong academicians, minority students, and students gifted in music or other talent that will shed more glory on the institution.

If parents want to pay less, they need to understand which colleges want their child most and why. They must consider cost early in the process, and be realistic in considering schools that are not among the top brands. There are hundreds of “hidden gems” across the country, and families who approach the process strategically stand a better chance of finding them.

Finding great schools at a lower price can be a mind-boggling process for busy, working parents, but they have to understand that they are their own best advocates.

Colleges have the financial aid shell game down to a science. Consumers are mostly oblivious to the fact that the admissions and aid processes are not simple and noble. Given the absurdly expensive cost of many popular schools, families should wake up to the fact that they must consider cost early in the college selection process.


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By Valerie Strauss  | November 4, 2010; 9:30 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, College Costs, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  admissions process, college admissions, college applications, college tuition, financial aid, guest bloggers, sticker price  
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I think it’s sad that colleges have gone away from the idea of educating the country to prioritizing on making money. I’ve been in college for 3 years now. And each year tuition has gone up. Not to mention I have to pay for parking and overpriced books. College should be offered to those who can further their education and not if they have money.

Posted by: pernellr1 | November 4, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

This is nothing new. Why else do schools like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc. have student populations overwhelmingly represented by the upper crust? Students from really wealthy families are virtually guaranteed admission to these so-called "selective" colleges. I have two middle-class friends who graduated from Stanford and Harvard respectively and their classmates at these schools were from the wealthiest of families. My friends knew scores of people who lived lives of unbelievable privilege.

It's the merely upper-middle class and the best & brightest of everyone else that are in for the "highly competitive" prospects of gaining admission to the "top" schools. If you're truly rich, you're in like Donkey Kong. If you're not and you get in, it's almost like winning the lottery. So good luck!

Posted by: Incidentally | November 4, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

You've confused your financial aid terms a bit here. "Need-based aid" does not mean that a college will meet 100% of what financial aid forms say the family should have to afford college. "Need-based aid" only means that colleges are determining financial aid based on a family's financial situation-income, assets, etc. They may then award them a partial package of $5000, say, when they know that the applicant needs $10,000. Usually those colleges don't offer merit scholarships for talents like music, sports, or athletics. This is a term that is distinct from a college telling families that it "meets 100% of demonstrated need" which is what you're actually discussing above.

Colleges that are "need blind" are an entirely different story. I work for such an institution and can promise you that when need-blind colleges say we don't consider family finances in making admissions decisions, we don't!

Posted by: AdmissionsCounselor | November 4, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

I'm surprised no one has connected this situation with the athletic fees written about in the Post a few days ago.

Years ago my college charge a compulsory "student activity" fee. This covered things like the Wednesday noon speaking program, which brought in politicians, authors, and so on to speak for an hour that was deliberately left free of classes. But it also covered things like access to the bowling alley and tennis courts and basketball tickets, things that commuting students or students with heavy work schedules were unlikely to use. (In fact, to take advantage of the basketball tickets, students lined up at the fieldhouse beginning at 4 in the morning--and sometimes cut their morning class to catch up on sleep.)

I would gladly have skipped the Wednesday lectures if I could have avoided paying for all the activities I couldn't use.

And last year when I tried to brush up on a foreign language to increase my value to employers,I had to buy a text covering all three courses in the sequence, even though I tested out of the first two levels and only used the last third of the book. Colleges would have less financial problems if they worked on lessening the students' financial problems.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | November 4, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

Let us not forget that the ineffective decisions of Chancellors and Dean's add to the growing costs of higher education. An example of a Chancellor's "fix it" strategy follows....Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s eight-year fiscal track record is dismal indeed. He would like to blame the politicians in Sacramento, since they stopped giving him every dollar he has asked for, and the state legislators do share some responsibility for the financial crisis. But not in the sense he means.
A competent chancellor would have been on top of identifying inefficiencies in the system and then crafting a plan to fix them. Competent oversight by the Board of Regents and the legislature would have required him to provide data on problems and on what steps he was taking to solve them. Instead, every year Birgeneau would request a budget increase, the regents would agree to it, and the legislature would provide. The hard questions were avoided by all concerned, and the problems just piled up to $150 million of inefficiencies….until there was no money left.
It’s not that Birgeneau was unaware that there were, in fact, waste and inefficiencies in the system. Faculty and staff have raised issues with senior management, but when they failed to see relevant action taken, they stopped. Finally, Birgeneau engaged some expensive ($3 million) consultants, Bain & Company, to tell him what he should have been able to find out from the bright, engaged people in his own organization.
In short, there is plenty of blame to go around. But you never want a serious crisis to go to waste. An opportunity now exists for the UC president, Board of Regents, and California legislators to jolt UC Berkeley back to life, applying some simple check-and-balance management principles. Increasing the budget is not enough; transforming senior management is necessary. The faculty, Academic Senate, Cal. Alumni, financial donators, benefactors and await the transformation.
The author, who has 35 years’ consulting experience, has taught at University of California Berkeley, where he was able to observe the culture and the way the senior management operates.

Posted by: Moravecglobal | November 4, 2010 8:25 PM | Report abuse

It disappoints me that even colleges care more about how much money you make, then what type of student you are. What happened to education being the great equalizer?

Posted by: adc09 | November 5, 2010 12:27 AM | Report abuse

There are several extremely misleading statements in your article.

First, the published total cost of attendance at the University of California Berkeley is $29,450 for California residents. And, this year, the UC system announced a new policy that will in effect waive fees (tuition) for students from families with income below $70.000 a year. The cost of attending UC Berkeley only tops $50,000 for out-of-state students. (see the UC website for the facts:

Second, as already noted above, your statement that need-blind means a promise that the gap between a family's Expected Family Contribution and the Cost of Attendance will be 100% met is incorrect.

Out of the 2400 colleges in the U.S., less than 50 promise to meet "full need" for every student that they admit.

At the remaining colleges, the percentage of students who have their "full need" met varies considerably.

Even a highly desirable applicant can find that their "full need" is not met at a school that only meets the full need of a small percentage of its students. It is therefore misleading to imply that a top student will always have their full need met at every college.

Therefore, the first question a family needs to ask is NOT whether a college is need blind, but rather what percentage of students actually have their full need met.

The fact that a college is need blind in admissions doesn't matter if they won't offer you enough money to make it possible for you to actually enroll. What good is getting in if you can not afford to go?

Carolyn Lawrence,

Posted by: CarolynLawrence | November 5, 2010 1:25 AM | Report abuse

Carolyn: The statistic about Berkeley came from the Chronicle article. And in fact, about 1 in 10 students at Berkeley do pay out of state tuition. The cost for in state students is one of the highest in the nation.

On the need based aid, you'v helped make my point: Only a handful of colleges promise to meet 100% of need. The vast majority of families with whom I work don't know this until I explain it. They assume that if their need is $20,000 the college will cover it.

I agree with your last statement. Many families find themselves in this situation, which is why the #1 reason most kids drop out of college is because they find they cannot afford it. In effect, you and I agree.

Posted by: Dean25 | November 7, 2010 7:54 AM | Report abuse

To "Admissions Counselor:" My point, perhaps not as articulately stated as I would have liked was that, most families assume that if they qualify for financial aid, the college will meet ALL of their need. There is disbelief when I explain it to them (in terms they can understand). Couple this with the fact that most families' EFC is significantly higher than their affordability, and you most colleges are too expensive for most families.

With regard to colleges that are need-blind such as yours, I have two comments: 1. The vast majority of your students do not receive financial aid, because most students of need cannot get admitted. If you plot SAT/ACT scores against family income, you'll find there's a direct relationship, so most kids who are admitted to Ivy League or similar schools do not qualify for aid. 2. For colleges who do say they're need blind in admissions, I would ask if they are need blind in awarding of financial aid. I have seen far too many of my clients get admitted to great schools only to find in their aid package a $2500 Stafford Loan to meet their need of $35,000. This is NOT need blind admissions, because they're virtually no chance this family could take out enough of their own loans to afford attendance.

Posted by: Dean25 | November 7, 2010 8:06 AM | Report abuse

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